Book Review: My Kitchen Wars

by Betty Fussell.

Betty Fussell will never be an M.F.K. Fisher. Nevertheless, I picked up her book today and didn't put it down until I'd finished it. (In case you don't know Mary Frances, let me just say My Kitchen Wars is a memoir about Betty's life, as seen through her experiences with food. She lived through the Depression, WWII, and so on...throughout her memoir, you get a sense of how Americans treated food through the years. Or at least some Americans.)

Her husband was Paul Fussell, a writer. A Writer. Betty Fussell's Wikipedia entry says, "She is the former wife of Paul Fussell, a literary critic and military historian." Her ex's says, "His first wife, Betty Fussell, a food writer and biographer, whom he met at Pomona College, has written a memoir, My Kitchen Wars (1999), that discusses their more than 30 years of marriage in highly negative terms, including allegations that Fussell had adulterous affairs with both men and women."

I don't know. Memoirs, autobiographies always puzzle me. Especially when everyone involved is still alive. Is it the truth? If it isn't the truth, why didn't you sue for libel? Is it better to just let a bad marriage go at some point? Or was it the truth, and you're content just to leave a question in people's minds that it might not be true? Anyway, the book depicts years upon years of two people never talking straight with each other, of two people settling into a set of assumptions because it was more comfortable that way, then acting surprised when their spirits or what have you can't take it any more, and push away. But it's told with such a charming voice that you forget how superficial everyone's been acting, how easily it's all been justified. He thinks of her as just the wife, someone intelligent enough to talk to and stupid enough to take advantage of. She thinks of him as the provider, the force between her and chaos. She gives in on every point because he throws temper tantrums if she doesn't. He thinks of her as too passive to be anything other than a wife. At the end, he says he wishes he hadn't left her, doesn't want to live without her, but can't be bothered to talk about her new cookbook for five minutes. She says she had to leave him because she needed room to write where he couldn't criticize her. But at the beginning of the book she says she still loves him.


Why was it so fascinating?

I've seen a lot of people whose marriages have come apart now. (And people like my parents, who got through the roughest parts and kept it together.) I don't want to be in the same town, let alone the same room with them. Why spend a whole book with people in this situation?

From time to time, you get things like the moment, in the sixties sometime I think, when Betty goes to France with Paul and they have homemade bread and butter. Her reaction was that for the first time, she'd had real bread and real butter. After which, she (and the rest of her set) go nuts over nouvelle cuisine, cooking their way through Julia Child cookbooks, peeling the skin off ducks, in order to make pate en croute inside their sewn skin. Her marriage was like that, too: Paul Fussell was the first non-jock, non-gay guy she'd met after the war. He was witty and intelligent. She loved him, and then she let him run all over her life, making her follow all kinds of odd little rules that upper-middle-class people had to follow, then the rules that professors' wives had to follow, then...

How does loving something get to be an overly complicated game? What do you do when you can't play anymore? --I think that's why I liked the book. The parallels between food and relationships was drawn well and nakedly, if not with an excessive amount of wisdom.